All photos courtesy of Swami Select
For the past several weeks, as soon as we rise in the morning and open the French doors, the strong scent of pure cannabis wafts across the meadow into our room. It is the sweetest perfume in the world, with its musky, fruity, fuelie and flowery fragrances. It was most pungent right before the first harvest at the beginning of October, but now that we have finished the second of three harvests, lasting three days each, there are far fewer plants left out there. Yet, even today, the aroma of cannabis terpenes was still strong enough to greet our noses with a delicious bouquet.
“Knock on hemp," this has been our best harvest ever thus far. So many variables go into creating a great crop, with the obvious ones being ideal weather conditions, growing strong cultivars, cultivating healthy, living soil, and assembling a great crew. Yet, there is so much more to getting it right, and it has taken us years to perfect the process. With a chuckle, we can reflect on past years when things were so basic and simple, and yet we still grew some really great weed. The modern cannabis farmer, in a remote-controlled greenhouse with pristine conditions, could not even imagine what it used to be like.
Swami Select's garden, shot in 2012
When we first moved to our ranch at the end of the road, in what we call “The Mendocino Highlands,” there was nothing here other than a two-room cabin built in 1926, one shed, and one outhouse. No electricity, no running water, no phone, no internet, and not even a bridge over the creek. The kitchen had an old Wedgewood stove for cooking and a funky propane fridge. We bought kerosene lanterns, and Swami set up an outside shower behind some old doors he pieced together. And as soon as possible, we put in a small garden.
That first year’s crop wasn’t huge. A friend we knew from San Francisco, who grew on a nearby mountain, gave us some starts that went into 50-gallon hard case plastic pots with organic potting soil from the garden store in town. Swami grew his first plants in San Francisco on the south facing side of Telegraph Hill in 1978, but this was a very different setting. We clearly had to educate ourselves on sensemillia marijuana cultivation in the mountains. We had a few friends up here already who had moved out of the city, and once the neighbors found out we were cool, they were very helpful. Information was gladly but discreetly shared, as we were all figuring this out together, like a band of outlaw gardeners.
Swami's first grow on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco (1978)
When it comes time to harvest, there are many theories about when to do it. Being free-spirited old hippies, of course we went with the “listen to the plant” method, which still makes the most sense to us today. When you are truly in tune with each plant in the garden, having nurtured each one starting from seed, it becomes obvious when they feel ready to come in. If you listen without judgement, the plant will tell you to the day. But what we weren’t prepared for was how and where to do it. The first tiny harvest, less than a pound per plant, was dried in the kitchen on strings hanging off the ceiling. It looked like an upside-down bonsai forest.
For the next year’s harvest, we found out that other growers had used long 10’x 20’ carport canopies for drying, so we got some of those and strung cords and dried the branches as much as possible until the rains came. Then, it was a mad dash into the house where we would hang them from every available place and let the wood stove dry the plants.
For the first few harvests, since there were only two rooms, six of us (plus an unruly dog one of the trimmers brought and one cat) slept in the front room on beds and mattresses spread out on the floor. Every morning, we would pack up the bedding into piles and set up a table and chairs for the trim crew. Meanwhile, someone assigned to be the cook would be busy in the kitchen making food for everyone. Other crew members would be harvesting and hanging the cannabis and making trips to town. As evening came, kerosene lanterns would be lit and we’d hunker down to trimming, while someone played a guitar for entertainment, or Swami read to us from a book or magazine. Stories, good meals, and laughter were shared and memories made around those tables. It could have been a quilting bee in the 18th century. It was quite literally a “cottage industry.”
After the first couple of years, we had a solar power system installed and got electricity so we could all listen to audio books on an old tape deck, but we still had no phone or internet. Trimmers would get so deeply into an audiobook that no one wanted to stop working and sleep. It was great for productivity, as well as intellectual entertainment. Over the years, more rooms were added to the house and various storage sheds went up, so we were able to spread our wings a bit and have a full room devoted to bucking and trimming. Every time we added a room or a shed, that became the new drying room.
Soon, fans and then a dehumidifier were added to get more control over the drying. We have always been very small craft farmers, so it’s not like we had giant loads to hang. Often, the plants were small enough to hang the whole plant upside down. Even so, we certainly reeked of fresh weed. Those were the days when everyone got checked before heading into town to make sure no buds were caught in their hair or on their sweater or that there was too much resin on their fingers. Safety and secrecy remained prime concerns.
In retrospect, it seems we never did anything quite the same from year to year. For example, the plastic 50-gallon pots were quickly replaced by wood-sided garden beds for several years, until we feared termites as they began to decay. Next were 400-gallon Smart Pots wrapped in burlap to keep them cool. But after a few years, when we learned about regenerative farming and living soil, which gave way to us planting directly in the ground.
We also embraced the bamboo trellising technique and improved upon it over the years, first using wire to attach the horizontal sticks to the vertical ones, like making a ladder. Then we switched to twisting rebar wire to attach them, and now we use nylon zip ties. These are the easiest methods, but still there is a lot of waste, so we are always looking for a better way to do things sustainably.
After a few years, we dialed-in the cultivation better and better, especially after we started to have the soil tested in the spring, in order to better understand the various nutrient needs of the plants. To be honest, in the early days, Swami used to just go into the local nursery and, with a list from a Japanese friend on a torn sheet of paper, pick up a five-pound bag of every one of the ten or so powdered amendments they had on the bottom shelf. Then, we'd mix them together and add them to the soil in the spring. Of course, this was a big step up from using Miracle Gro, like he did with his first crop in San Francisco. Since then, we have moved onto regenerative agriculture, living soil, manure, compost teas, worm bins, etc.
Like everything else in the process, we continue to change and refine the actual harvest method. As the plants got bigger, we learned that many people harvested using the “trophy trim” technique, instead of taking the whole plant. When it is ready, the top 10 to 12 inches of each branch is cut off, but the rest of the branch is left to continue to ripen and mature for up to two weeks and then harvested.
At this point, our plants are six feet in diameter and up to fourteen feet high. In order to simplify the accounting for each plant and meet the requirements of track and trace and batch testing, we harvest the whole plant at once, cutting each long branch 6 to 8 inches from the trunk. Each “girl” must then be weighed before her branches are hung to dry.
In the early days, even before harvest, we would pick the yellow and dead brown leaves off the living plants in the garden. The thought was to open them up and not block the light to the lower buds and to avoid the dead leaves from turning to mold in damp weather. However, over the years, we learned that doing a deep-dive yellow leafing on the living plant can inadvertently spread mold and mildew spores. The yogic positions assumed by the “yellow-leafer,” as they climb up and twist into the plant to get at those yellow leaves in the very center, raises the risk of cross contamination from the worker’s hands and clothing.
Eventually, we learned to never touch the buds in the garden. Who hasn’t had the impulse to grab and squeeze a big juicy bud while it is on the growing plant and pull it close to take a deep breath of the intoxicating terpenes? Yet, finally, we figured out that it bruises the buds to pinch them, and those damaged sore spots are then more susceptible to mold. Once again, keep it simple proves to be the best method.
For the first several harvests, we did a tight, wet trim on all the buds before hanging them, which often meant working late nights. We would cut down three or four plants in the morning or afternoon and put the branches in a 5-gallon bucket to keep them fresh all day — kind of like long-stem roses. The wet trimming, originally an indoor technique, accelerated the drying process and made for a nice solid bud when dried, but it was time- and labor-intensive, and it knocked off too many trichomes in the process.
These days, we try to touch the plant as little as possible. So along with not taking the yellow leaves in the garden, we now hang each branch as we cut it, with all the leaves still on it. This doesn’t slow the drying process, and it also protects the flowers underneath the leaves.
In past years, we used to grow many different cultivars — one year, we had 26 strains or cultivars. We used to be like kids in a candy store drooling over the array of delicious varieties available. Restraint has finally come into play in the past couple of years because of the high cost of testing each cultivar for the legal market (almost $1000 per 50-pound batch). As a result, we have narrowed it down to eight primary cultivars.
California’s legalization in 2018 brought necessary changes in how we harvest to abide by the new laws. We still cut the plants in the dark before first light to obtain maximum terpenes, but now we need to harvest in three-day batches for the state track-and-trace system. So, we have chosen cultivar groups which complete their growing cycles in staggered intervals of about two weeks apart. This means we can harvest each group at its peak time and have space to dry it before it comes down and the next three-day batch gets hung. The days of drying weed everywhere are long over as we must now be very hygienic and insist on exact humidity and temperature controls. It has also become clear that you need almost as much space to dry the harvested plants as to grow them.
About ten years ago, we built a timber frame barn on our ranch. Well, actually it is a “drying shed/residential storage building,” depending on who is asking. It is quite large, and the sturdy Douglas fir wooden frame and wood sheathing are perfect for drying cannabis, somewhat similar to grapes fermenting in oak barrels. Previously, we had strung ropes across the interior of the rooms in the building. At one point, we used ten or twelve mosquito screen trays stacked up in wooden frames for drying, which was kind of messy, and it flattened one side of the bud if you didn’t flip them.
Eventually, after much trial and error, we devised a system in the barn using nylon trellis netting and pulleys for raising and lowering the netting. Now, the interior of the barn is almost like being on a tall-masted sailing ship, with layers of netting suspended like sails from the ceiling and cannabis branches hung in their 5-inch squares. It took years of experimenting with ropes, trays, wires, and even metal grids of hog panel suspended from 2x4 boards, before we arrived at this technique, which works the absolute best. The best thing is that we don’t have to take it down for the rest of the year; we just haul up the nets with the ropes. Such is the never-ending quest of the farmer, searching for the best and most efficient way to do the job!
While many of the new regulations are honestly a pain in the ass, some of them are actually teaching us new things, as well. We complained about the requirement to put meters on our spring- and pond-water supplies, but now we know exactly how much water we actually use.
We also resisted the very thought of a detailed track-and-trace system for seed-to-sale accountability for years – after all, the lawyers always told us to never write anything down that had to do with growing and selling weed! But now that the METRC system is set up and going, we are beginning to grasp how it works. We can see how it can be of use, keeping track of yield per cultivar, identifying cultivars with mold or mildew sensitivity, and even certifying the origin of the product.
At first it seemed absurd when they told us we had to now weigh all the plants as soon as we cut them, before they get hung to dry. We had to buy an $800 scale certified by the county, with a giant hook to hang up the tarps holding all of the freshly cut branches from each individual plant with its track-and-trace number.
Then, about 10 days later, after it is dried, each plant is taken down and bucked into small 12-inch to 18-inch pieces to be wrapped in brown Kraft paper and placed in large tubs, when it all needs to get weighed once again. Even the waste from bucking needs to get weighed. All of this gets recorded for METRC. Then, the plants are sent off with the distributor, who comes to pick it up in his big, highly-secured box-truck a few days later, and off the “kids,” (i.e. the girls or plants) go to their new home to be processed. Due to new legal and zoning restrictions, the flowers need to be trimmed off-site. It can be quite bittersweet to see them go.
Looking back, it seems everything was over-the-top in the “old days.” Too many people working and partying for too many hours. Even though it was a whole lot of fun, and even though pot sold for a “no questions asked,” $3000-a-pound wholesale, it still cost a bundle to take care of everyone with food and drinks. Somehow, we always got it all done, but after about six weeks of non-stop 12-hour days, we’d all be exhausted, ready to go our separate ways and get some fresh air. Some years were more mellow, while some years had some real drama. Luckily, we always had plenty of good smoke to get us through.
Gone are the days of sharing the house with a full crew for a couple of months every year, living and working under weed dangling everywhere. With legalization comes “civilization” and job specialization. Whatever details and protocols, the primary purpose remains to grow the best and purest cannabis on the planet, and I do believe that keeps getting better every year. It is the culmination of these years of trial and error and celebration which have brought us to this, our best crop ever. Jai ganja ma!
For more on Swami Select, visit their website here